Villa's upward curve fails to convince

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The Independent Football

AT THE END, when virtually everyone else had left the pitch, Gareth Southgate strode back to the centre circle and started swinging his arms towards the rapidly emptying stands as if commanding an orchestra to a climax. The normally undemonstrative Southgate explained later that his Simon Rattle impersonation is a ritual reserved for victories.

AT THE END, when virtually everyone else had left the pitch, Gareth Southgate strode back to the centre circle and started swinging his arms towards the rapidly emptying stands as if commanding an orchestra to a climax. The normally undemonstrative Southgate explained later that his Simon Rattle impersonation is a ritual reserved for victories.

The defeat of Middlesbrough means it has been seen four times in the opening six matches, compared with only five wins in the entire second half of last season. Yet the muted response to the England defender's exhortations indicated that few among the faithful believe John Gregory's team are capable of calling the tune like they did last autumn. Statistically, they have made the sort of start which, were it not for the scars left by their post-Christmas collapse, would be encouraging visions of Villa becoming the first club to win championships in three different centuries. They are in second place, exactly where they stood 12 months ago, having collected a point less and a goal more and, according to Southgate, they now have more strings to their bow.

The public, however, appear sceptical; at fewer than 28,500, the average attendance for Villa's three home fixtures is 8,500 down on the 1998-99 figure. Like Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, it seems they do not put Villa in the same bracket as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. Robson's assertion that they were more likely to push for Europe than for the title was an honest appraisal rather than sour grapes.

By the same token, Southgate's obvious satisfaction was tempered by realism. "We were disappointed to lose at Chelsea but if you take the six games as a whole it's a solid start," the Villa captain said. "Only time will tell if we've bridged the gap. We know we've got a stronger squad - there's more steel about us this year - though whether we have the quality to challenge remains to be seen. "We've learned a great deal from last year. It was the first time we'd been in that situation and the excitement of being top for so long was quite draining. When you saw people writing us off on TV you got wound up, whereas this year those kind of comments will probably go over our heads. I think the attitude will be more resilient."

Southgate admitted "a lot of soul searching" went on during the summer. "We were looking at where we went wrong and how we could improve, and we've still got so much to do before we can consistently challenge the big boys.

"People are saying only three clubs can win the title, so maybe our crowds are a reflection of that and people are waiting to see how things pan out," Southgate said. "Even so, it's a shame to see so many empty seats."

Those who did venture to Villa Park saw Dion Dublin - overlooked by England - score early on with a textbook centre-forward's header. Sadly for the spectacle, Villa were unable to respond to the promptings of Paul Merson, who flourished the conductor's baton with authority and imagination in his first full 90 minutes since May.

Meanwhile, Merson's former club could not rise above the ravages of injury.Despite the box-to-box industry of another player discarded by Kevin Keegan, Paul Ince, Middlesbrough were bereft of players, such as the absent Christian Ziege, who might have got behind Southgate and co to test a jittery David James.

Their wing-backs never attacked in the way that Alan Wright, who created the goal in tandem with Merson, and Mark Delaney, an athletic addition from Cardiff, did for Villa. The next test of Villa's credentials comes at Arsenal after the international hiatus. That match is the prelude to a hectic spell for the trio of favourites, during which they are embroiled in Champions' League combat for three weeks running.

Southgate is not persuaded that Europe will put undue stress on their enviably large squads, although paradoxically, Villa's bitterly lamented absence from the Uefa Cup may leave them in better shape to face the music this time round.

Goal: Dublin (5) 1-0.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Ehiogu (Boateng, 67), Southgate, Calderwood; Delaney, Taylor, Hendrie, Merson, Wright; Joachim (Vassell, 78), Dublin. Substitutes not used: Thompson, Ghrayib, Oakes (gk). Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Gavin, Pallister, Vickers; Stamp, Mustoe, Ince, Townsend (Summerbell, 76), Stockdale; Ricard (Campbell, 70), Deane. Substitutes not used: Moore, Armstrong, Roberts (gk).

Referee: M Halsey (Welwyn Garden City).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Ince, Summerbell.

Man of the match: Merson.

Attendance: 28,728.

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